Yogi and Teacher Training Student: Heather Harris

August in New Orleans is oppressive. With heat, slowed tourist and local traffic, and ominous tropical storms comes a challenging impatience we all start to feel for the slightly cooler temperatures and the return of life to the city. For those working in the hospitality/service industry, the drain is more than a drag. It is a time that requires intense patience, planning, and optimism. In order to learn about the New Orleans hospitality worker and the role yoga can play in a sometimes stressful and highly unpredictable industry at the heart of New Orleans culture, we talked to Reyn yogi and teacher training student, Heather Harris.

Heather is a self proclaimed extrovert and seven year NOLA resident who epitomizes the genuine warmth and authentic interactions our city is so strongly associated with. Having worked in service industry for the past twenty years and practicing yoga for about eleven, she is full of practical insights regarding interpersonal exchanges, the mind/body connection, and the importance of caring for the entire being.

Like many, Heather moved to the city after a single visit. She fell in love with New Orleans’ people, beauty, and overall creative vibe and was excited by the bountiful opportunities in the hospitality industry. The abundant culture and kindness of the people reinforced her decision to leave Dallas and to grow personally and professionally in New Orleans. She was encouraged to try yoga while still living in Dallas as a way to help her return to physical activity after experiencing trauma in a car accident. Through yoga, Heather was able to recover physically, mentally, and emotionally from the impacts of the accident, and found that it also helped her care for her body and the stresses it endured from working long, busy shifts on her feet. Delving deeper into practice Heather has found that her time on the mat is essential to health and productivity. Taking time to care for herself on the mat has supported her ability to navigate challenging interpersonal relationships that often come with the territory of being in the hospitality industry. Speaking with Heather feels like chatting with someone you’ve known forever. Her presence puts the room at ease. She makes purposeful eye contact, actively listens, absorbs, and responds with care. You’re made to feel like you are part of some inside joke or sitting at the cool kids table in a non-threatening, casual way. It is no surprise that she would thrive in the industry that caters to tourists who want to be in the know.

Heather speaks of curating joyful, impeccably presented experiences for people with such enthusiasm that it makes you forget that those in the service industry (including mavericks like herself) are not always treated as the expert they are. Often being seen as someone with limited opportunities or imagination because of their chosen profession; service industry workers can run against a disrespect that can be a challenging aspect of the job. Having guests who you are working hard to please be dismissive of you and your profession would be enough to dampen anyones sense of humor, but it seems instead to fuel Heathers. With the warmest smile and a hint of a laugh she simply wishes people would check themselves before treating anyone as lesser and to remember that serving and caring for you and meeting your needs is a full time job that someone has chosen.

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Humility is essential to working in the service industry. It includes checking your ego at the door, a theme that is paramount to the yoga practice. Heather has an emotional intelligence and vulnerability in discussing her journey that reflects the yogic principles in a very modern context. A transient childhood, in conjunction with her very extroverted personality, have had influence over Heather’s motivations and relationships. Frequently moving, and thus not feeling like an essential member of childhood friend groups, led Heather down a path of validation seeking. Like most humans, she wanted to feel loved and accepted. Not really being a part of something, often feeling left out or like she had to work harder to be seen or included, was a theme of her upbringing. Maturity and mindfulness have helped her to adapt, be more comfortable in her own skin and to be able to tap out of the spaces that aren’t right for her, but that still takes a lot of work. Yoga has helped her to identify where different emotions and traumas live in the body and to listen to the warning signals that they send.  

An example of this interconnectivity is the way Heather experiences the cycle of judgement and acceptance of herself and others play out in the tension between the shoulders and upper back. The literal and figurative sensation of backstabbing and distrust and the instinct to protect and withdraw is a particularly challenging aspect of her growth. Due to this external variable, and the intangible space it inhabits in her back body, she often feels a flare when she is in flux or when life is more stressful. Identifying this challenge, this space, and the various factors involved has heightened Heather’s mind/body awareness and ability to be more proactive in her self care. Identifying areas of struggle in the body and the emotional ties they indicate has allowed Heather the space to explore notions of validity, worthiness, and attachment.

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She views the exhausting nature of her work, the strain of people asserting their worth by making people like her not as societally valued, and the constant temptation of decompression through intoxication are all opportunities for Heather to work on her self acceptance. She is so refreshingly open about how much harder empathy can make her job, but so game for the challenge that you want to dive in with her. You want to remember that every single person you interact with has their own story, their own challenges, their own work, but they deserve to be cared for and seen regardless. Swimming in the deep end of interconnectivity feels like an inspired adventure when Heather talks about it, and you want to jump right in with her. Heather shows up to do the work, and she inspires you to as well. Show up when the challenge arises and don’t back away. When a new opportunity presents itself, take it; don’t check out, tune in. Be compassionate to yourself and others, try not to wallow in guilt, shame or fear, take time to care for yourself so you can take care of others. Through example, Heather demonstrates that we don’t ever have “it “ figured out perfectly, the energy going in and the energy going out is rarely in balance. More importantly, she is proof of the magic we can create within ourselves and our community when we try, when we give ourselves the space to be humans, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to be full of awareness and wonder.

-RS